A recently resurfaced video clip of statements made by Ustad Abdul Somad (known as UAS for short), in which the hugely popular preacher talks about Christian crosses containing “infidel genies”, has triggered many outraged responses in Indonesia, from the numerous parties that have reported him to the police for blasphemy to the groups vehemently defending him (with one group calling themselves UAS Lovers going so far as to file a defamation report against one of the individuals who reported UAS for blasphemy).
Arguably the most reasonable response to the controversy has come from the Communion of Churches in Indonesia (PGI), a national ecumenical body and member of the World Council of Churches.
Speaking on behalf of the group, PGI Secretary General Reverend Gomar Gultom told the media on Monday that, while the words of UAS were concerning, PGI did not believe he should be criminally prosecuted for them. Instead, he argued that the incident should be seen as an example of why Indonesia’s laws on blasphemy, which are set to be strengthened in a draft for a new national criminal code (RKUHP) that will likely be passed in the near future, need to be repealed.
Gomar invoked the words of Indonesia’s fourth president, the famed defender of pluralism Abdurrahman Wahid aka Gus Dur, who also spoke out against the need for blasphemy laws.
“As Gus Dur repeatedly said, God does not need to be defended. Christ also does not need to be defended. The faith of Christians will not fade away just because of the statements of UAS,” he said as quoted by Detik.
Gomar went on to say that PGI does not support the existence of blasphemy laws, including those under discussion in the current version of RKUHP.
“In the discussion of RKUHP in the current parliament, PGI, together with civil society groups and leaders of various religious institutions in Indonesia, has also requested that articles on blasphemy be eliminated.”
Gomar referenced two other notoriously controversial uses of Indonesia’s blasphemy laws that PGI argued should’ve led to reconsiderations of the country’s blasphemy laws, specifically the convictions of former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama (who was found guilty of insulting Islam due to highly politicized charges made during the 2017 Jakarta gubernatorial race) and Meliana (who was found guilty of insulting Islam for allegedly complaining about the volume of the call to prayer from a mosque in her neighborhood).
Indeed, PGI is far from the only group to sound the alarm about the country’s blasphemy laws, including those proposed in the current version of RKUHP. Several civil society organizations have asked for ratification of the bill to be postponed until the articles in question can be reworded to make them less vague and potentially discriminatory.
The current version of RKUHP article 313 states: “Every person who publically insults a religion recognized in Indonesia” shall be liable to a maximum imprisonment of five years.
The word “insults” is considered especially problematic by these groups, some of whom argue that the government should instead use the term “spread hatred” to protect members of religious groups from crimes and violence.
UAS’ “infidel genie” controversy
UAS, who has risen to national fame in recent years for his crowd-pleasing sermons and colloquial style, came under fire after a clip of him speaking at a mosque in Pekanbaru from three years ago resurfaced on social media over the weekend and quickly went viral.
In the clip, UAS is taking questions from the audience, one of which is about why they get the shivers whenever they see a crucifix. After reading the question, UAS answers “Satan!” to the laughs of his audience.
UAS then goes on to talk extensively about crucifixes containing “jin kafir” (“jin” being a term for supernatural entities akin to genies or demons in Islam and “kafir” being a term for those who do not believe in Islam, often translated as “infidel”), including in the context of the crosses used at hospitals. He advises those listening to cover up such symbols because if their family member is dying at the hospital they will be called over by the jin kafir to denounce Islam in their final moments.
The video clip instantly ignited controversy online, with many saying UAS had insulted Christianity and calling for him to be prosecuted under Indonesia’s blasphemy laws.
Soon after, a video was released online showing UAS providing “clarifications” about the clip that he gave at a mosque in Riau on Saturday.
In the clip, UAS says that he was only speaking in response to a question from the congregation and it was given in a closed forum at a mosque and so was only meant for other Muslims.
“It was a study in a closed mosque, not in a stadium, not in a football field. Not on TV, but only internally to Muslims to explain the questions to Muslims about the crucifix and the position of Jesus,” he said.
His last point was that the sermon was given three years ago during a morning study session and he was surprised that it resurfaced now. But he said he would face the consequences of what he had said, leaving it up to Allah.
“I will not run away, I will not complain. I will not be afraid, because I do not feel guilty, nor do I think I have damaged the unity and integrity of the nation,” he said.
Despite that clarification, UAS has already been reported to the police by at least four different parties for blasphemy, including a lecturer at a private university in Jakarta named Manotar Tampubolon, the Indonesian Christian Student Movement (GMKI), a group called Presidium Rakyat Menggugat (PRM) and Horas Bangso Batak (HBB), a Batak community group.
Manotar reported UAS to the police for violating Indonesia’s controversial Law on Information and Electronic Transactions (UU ITE), specifically its articles that criminalize the electronic dissemination of information that can cause hatred between different racial and religious groups.
UU ITE is also the law that former Jakarta Governor Basuki “Ahok” Tjahaja Purnama was infamously found guilty of violating in 2017 for allegedly insulting the Quran, a connection Manotar made clear in a statement to the media.
“In our opinion, if indeed the law could be applied to Pak Ahok that it can also be applied to Ustad Abdul Somad, indeed we believe the chance is even greater,” Manotar said on Sunday as quoted by Detik.
Ahok was found legally guilty of blasphemy, and his political career was ended, in large part because the country’s most senior Islamic clerical body, the Indonesian Ulema Council (MUI), released a fatwa declaring he had insulted Islam.
Despite UAS’ comments about the cross being, arguably, far more inflammatory than anything Ahok had said, MUI has already released a statement declaring that what UAS said could not be considered blasphemy against Christianity because it was given in the context of a sermon to his fellow Muslims.
“It is not appropriate to bring legal action against religious leaders who are preaching religion addressed to followers of their own faith, especially when delivered in special places such as houses of worship,” Fahmi Salim, deputy chairperson of MUI’s Dakwah Commission, said in an official statement received by CNN Indonesia on Sunday.
Although MUI has given UAS a pass because he was only speaking before other Muslims, the clerical body has called upon police to find out who uploaded and spread the clip online to see if they can be prosecuted for spreading hate speech.